A recent anonymous comment to my blog on "Division of Fractions by the Alien Method" wrote:
"This is really cool! And you are correct...I (like most other 5th graders a long time ago) memorized a method to divide fractions...I believe the mantra was "Yours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply"....or another one that students seem to use is "Keep, change, re-arrange". Although I can certainly perform the operation, and can even ask the question posed by 2/3 divided by 5/7 (If we think of it as a piece of wood with length 2/3, then I believe the question is how many 5/7's are there in the piece of wood). Unfortunately, that doesn't tell me "why" inverting the second fraction and then multiplying works....I've asked several very bright people and have never gotten an answer that sticks...can you enlighten????"
I want to make one comment about division of fractions that seems harder to visulaize than for general division, and then I hope to explain in simple terms just why "invert and multiply" works.
For every multiplication problem, there are two associated division problems; A x B = C begets C/A=B and C/B=A. Elementary teachers call these a "family of facts for C" (or did in the recent past.. educational language changes too fast for firm statments by a non-elementary teacher). So if we add units to one or both factors, appropriate units must be appended to the product. So how does this effect operations with fractions? Well if we have length, as in ANON's comment, then the division problem he states, "If we think of it as a piece of wood with length 2/3, then I believe the question is how many 5/7's are there in the piece of wood" he is dividing length by length to get a pure scaler counting how many pieces (or fractions of a piece) will fit into another. In the case he gives, the answer would be only 14/15 of a piece... becuase the 2/3 unit length is not quite enough to provide a 5/7 unit length piece...
The multiplication associated with this operation is then 14/15 of 5/7 units = 2/3 units... What about the other division in this family of facts... 2/3 units divided by 14/15 (a scaler here, not a length)will give 5/7 units length. What is this sitution describing? This seems the one most difficult for teachers and students alike. We all know what it means to divide a length into (by?) two pieces, but what sense does it make to divide it into 1/2 a piece.
We might try to make this clear to students by taking some common length (12 inches?) and see what happens if we divide it into (by) 8 pieces, then four, then two, then one, (each division is by half the previousl number)and look at the pattern of lengths. 12/8=3/2; 12/4 = 3; 12/2 = 6; 12/1= 12... I am confident most students could identify the next numbers in the sequence, 12/ (1/2) = 24, and 12/(1/4) = 48.
At this point, using whole numbers as divisors, the pattern for "invert and multiply" seems obvious, but this is far from a why for all fraction problems.
Let's look at one more case where we sneak in a related idea at the elementary level. Given a problem like 3.5 divided by .04, the student is taught to "move the decimal places enough to make the divisor (.04) a whole number. What we do is another problem (350 divided by 4) that has the same answer (87.5)as the original. Another why does that work that is not often explained.
What do the two operations have in common.... multiplication by one. In each case we have a division (fraction) operation and we simply mulitiply the fraction by a carefully chosen version of one that will make it easier to do. If we view 3.5/.04 as a fraction, then every fifth grader knows that multipliying it by one will not change its value. This is the core of what we do to find equivalent fractions... to get 3/5 = 6/10 we multiply by one, but expressed as 2/2... The decimal division problem uses the same approach... we multiply 3.5/.04 by 100/100 to get another name for the same fraction, 350/4.
Now to explain "invert and multiply" we just use the same idea... dividing fractions is simply fractions which have fractions instead of integers in the numerator and denominator. We want to multiply by one in a way that the division problem will be easier. But the easiest number to divide by is one,... so why not pick a number that changes the denominator of the fraction over a fraction to be a one... that is, multiply by its reciprocal. So for 2/3 divided by 5/7 we can write
And I hope that makes it clear.... questions and comments are gratefully received